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About Vickie Sullivan

Vickie Sullivan is internationally recognized as the top market strategist for thought leaders, professional speakers and B2B professional service firms. Specializing in brand and message strategies in crowded markets, she has helped thousands of talented people outsmart their competition since 1987.

Written by: Vickie Sullivan  |  December 01, 2007

Defining Your Expertise: 3 Questions For Choosing Your Best Branding Path

Originally published for

Most rainmakers have an embarrassment of riches – talented and energetic, they have many ways to brand their expertise. It’s supposed to be easy to choose. Just focus on what you love and on your perceived strengths and the money will follow, right? Not necessarily.

Too many experts define their expertise to prospects that are easily accessible instead of to buyers who are willing to invest and who have big budgets. Or worse, experts get seduced by initial success in a niche that pays current fees, only to find out later that these clients will drop out at the first price increase.

How to make the right branding choice when you have so many options? Below are three strategic questions, with examples, that will ensure your brand sets you up for sustainable success.

1. Will This Brand Take Me To A Market Where I Can Be Different?

When we know our strengths, we often gravitate towards those who need our talents without asking a very important question: has anyone else thought the same thing?

The answer is often, “Yes.” Any similar experts can easily reach the same conclusions you did and brand themselves to the same market.

Your services, no matter how much better, will initially be identified as a commodity. Your branding investment will have to overcome the “one of many” default perception. This will take longer and cost more, and many experts are unprepared for the long haul.

Example: An organizational development consultant has a great track record for blending divergent workplace cultures. She decides that she wants to specialize in Mergers and Acquisitions, given the problems she’s read about in the press.

She spends huge amounts of time and money branding herself in that market only to learn that similar experts have the same idea and are already established in this market. No matter how much press she gets or how many speeches she gives, buyers don’t want to pay her premium fees.

This expert has what I call the “dead cat” dilemma. If your prospects can swing a dead cat and hit ten or more viable alternatives to you, then you have a choice: stick it out and brand for long-term market leadership or pull a “blue ocean strategy” and brand to a market where you can be a category of one.

The latter road will take more strategy and more digging to find. But, the time and energy you take will pay off handsomely in less time and with more revenue when you make the cut.

2. Does This Brand Build A Big Enough Sandbox?

When we begin our branding campaign, the market looks vast and unlimited. It’s a big sandbox where we can live long and prosper. The key question is: Is this playground really big enough?

The more successful we become, the more new vistas we want to conquer. And that’s when our brand feels too small.
We want to increase our fees, and the current buyers can’t pay. We want to expand in new markets, and the new buyers don’t like our brand. In both cases, the brand we chose doesn’t expand with us.

Example: An entrepreneurial growth expert branded himself first in the public seminar market. It was a logical and profitable decision given that many small business owners attend one-time seminars and that he generated an income from registration fees and from the clients he got after the event. All in all, it was worth giving up a speaking fee to get in front of high-end clients.

This expert now wants to expand into the paid speaking market, giving presentations at events other than his own. The logic was sound: let someone else promote the event, the speaking fee will offset the income from registrations and he will still get clients.

The problem was unforeseen. He had to start cold with new prospects. Worse, when he moves to the paid speaking circuit, his brand has the opposite effect on the event organizers there.

What he didn’t know was event organizers there saw public seminar speakers as “hucksters” who lack substance and content. He got rejected in the first round. They said, “Your content is not relevant,” even if their audience was small business owners.

He created a branding box with two undesirable choices: either give up speaking fees and stay in the public seminar market or reinvent his brand to attract paid speaking engagements.

This expert branded his expertise on the lowest hanging fruit; he branded by venue – public seminars – instead of by buyers, the small business owners.

Experts who brand based on the outlet to distribute their expertise are in a position of weakness. Why? Buyers pigeonhole the expert by the venue (keynote speaker, consultant, coach) instead of by the value of their expertise. This brand won’t carry over to new markets or even to new venues.

In this case, if our expert branded based on small business issues, he could have done both public seminars and the convention circuit. His grab at easy profits hurt his growth in the long run.

3. Can I Easily Execute This Brand?

Too many experts brand based on envy. They see someone successful and try to duplicate their brand. They don’t stop and ask two very important questions: What will it take to bring this brand to market? And the bigger question: Is it easy for me to do what it takes?

Unless you have similar strengths to those of your successful model, implementing will be both unprofitable and unpleasant.

Many experts learn too late that implementing their new brand requires activities they are not naturally good at. This creates a dilemma. They can either spend money on an expert to do the needed creative or implementation things they aren’t good at or they can try to do those things themselves with less-than-stellar results.

Example: An elite executive coach wants to brand herself to high-powered female execs. Why? Because her role model is a well-paid executive coach for women (and she likes to work with women too). Makes sense, right?

Problem: her role model already had champions with big budgets, so she started her business at six figures. This coach doesn’t have those connections, so she has to start “from scratch.”

If our expert doesn’t have an ongoing media outlet, such as a talk show or syndicated column, making enough sales will require an expensive press campaign. She can easily spend too much money for too little traction. Best-case scenario: famous but not rich.

Our intrepid hero made a common and sometimes fatal assumption: If you can do it, then I can too. While role models are great examples of what is possible, we have to dig deeper and learn if what they’ve done is profitable for us.

The best way to determine that is to compare apples with apples; match the implementation requirements with what you do best and then make your choice.

If, as a consultant, you have a strength in media relations, then brands that depend on ongoing media will be easy for you. If, on the other hand, you have a strength in copywriting, then defining your expertise to high-end prospects who don’t know you will work. Choosing a brand based on your implementation gifts will make going to market appear effortless.

Check Your Motivation

With branding, an ounce of strategy is worth a pound of do-overs. Backtracking after building a brand is expensive, time consuming and risky. Before choosing your best brand, ask yourself these three questions – and then ask one more:

  1. What is my motivation here?
  2. Are you looking for the easiest way because you don’t have the market intelligence?
  3. Are you starting small because you think you have to?
  4. Is your decision based on wanting what someone else has?

Honor your expertise, think strategically and choose your brand accordingly.

Filed Under: Branding

About Vickie Sullivan

Vickie Sullivan is internationally recognized as the top market strategist for thought leaders, professional speakers and B2B professional service firms. Specializing in brand and message strategies in crowded markets, she has helped thousands of talented people outsmart their competition since 1987.